Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at Tiffany's

“It’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.”

Have you ever seen something that seemed to say one thing at first glance, but upon further inspection actually says the exact opposite? I think Breakfast at Tiffany’s fits that pattern. Directed by Blake Edwards (The Party, The Pink Panther) and starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard, this film is often lifted up as a fun example of 60s style and culture—particularly Hepburn’s character Holly Golightly. But dig a little deeper and there’s a darkness just underneath the surface that takes a hard look at the cultural revolution of the 60s—why it existed and where it was going. This is fun to watch whether you understand the cultural context or not, but understanding it opens up a whole new plane of understanding for the film.

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Good Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting

“You could be a janitor anywhere. Why did work at the most prestigious technical college in the whole world? And why did you sneak around at night and finish other people’s formulas that only one or two people in the world could do and then lie about it?”

J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is one of my all-time favorite books. In many ways, Good Will Hunting is kind of a spiritual successor to that book. Directed by Gus Van Sant (Milk, Elephant) and starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Robin Williams, this drama captures tortured genius better than most other movies, and it gives a very detailed look at how such a man could develop—and eventually be saved. It also captures the aimlessness of youth without making the whole movie about it. It’s a moving drama with a smart script and witty dialogue and stands out as one of the best-written movies of the 90s.

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Chinatown

Chinatown

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

It’s not often that you come across a movie with a brilliant and absolutely flawless script. The Godfather and Casablanca fall into this category, and I had heard a lot about them growing up. But I had never even heard of Chinatown until I started putting my list together. Directed by Roman Polanski (The Pianist, Rosemary’s Baby) and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, this is a film noir/mystery with a modern bite, and the script is absolutely amazing. In fact, most screenwriting classes and workshops will at least reference Chinatown. The mystery is great and keeps you guessing, and in true film noir fashion, it can get pretty dark. But this is a brilliant and entertaining movie that should be watched by any film fan.

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The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter

“You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about. A deer’s gotta be taken with one shot.”

(This review has some spoiler-free discussion of the ending.)

Every once in awhile, there’s a movie that has a strong and profound emotional impact on me, and I can’t articulate exactly why. Lost in Translation and Stand By Me are on that list—and, now, The Deer Hunter is also on that list. Directed by Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate, Year of the Dragon) and starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, and Meryl Streep, this is a deep and emotional drama set during the Vietnam War. While most war movies, like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, focus on the war, less than 40 minutes of this 182-minute movie are set in the war. Most of the rest of the movie takes place before and after the soldiers go to war and shows the devastating changes it makes on them. It’s personal in a way that no other war movie is, and it’s a fantastic drama in its own right.

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Rear Window

Rear Window

“That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”

It’s no secret that movie-watchers love to watch people commit crimes. Crime drama is a huge sub-genre, and even films that don’t revolve around crime frequently use it to push the plot forward. There’s a bit of a voyeur in each of us that perks up when we see a crime on film, and it usually makes for a pretty entrancing story. Rear Window, directed by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, North by Northwest) and starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, is a meta, almost self-aware reference to this tendency in us: it shows a man watching someone commit what he presumes is a crime. It’s a great classic suspense film with a unique gimmick: the movie takes place almost entirely in one apartment. Whether you appreciate the gimmick or not, this is a clever and entertaining suspense movie that holds up well today.

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Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

“Why must fireflies die so young?”

I’m reluctantly a fan of some anime, but I’ll admit, the medium has been really hit or miss for me. There are some brilliant stories and a lot of stuff that’s just not for me. But when I heard about an anime film that shows World War II through the eyes of two orphaned Japanese children, I knew I had to give it a shot. Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) who was a colleague of Hayao Miyazaki, is a moving and heart-breaking story about the horrors of war and the importance of family in a setting that American viewers don’t often think about. I’ll warn you now: it’s quite sad, and your soul will undoubtedly die a little bit as you watch this. But it’s still a beautiful story that I’m glad I experienced. And if you’re wondering, there is an English dub and it’s pretty decent.

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Alien

Alien (1979)

“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

The sci-fi genre has produced some brilliant movies; but for a long time, it failed to produce one thing: heightened suspense. Sci-fi movies made you think, but they rarely got your heart racing. Alien, directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) and starring Sigourney Weaver and John Hurt, changed the genre. With a tagline like, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” you know you’re in for a wild ride. It’s not just a great sci-fi suspense movie—it’s probably one of the best suspense movies ever made. It doesn’t skimp on the science fiction, but this movie is downright terrifying, and it does it without resorting to cheap jump scares or excessive gore. Though often imitated, this is a movie that stands up very well today and earns its spot on the watch list of any serious cinema fan.

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Spirited Away

Spirited Away

“Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember.”

Think back to the Disney movies you probably watched as a young child. There was that sense of wonder and enchantment, like you were swept away into a new, magnificent world that just seemed so magical. I don’t really get that feeling from Disney movies anymore, nor do I from most movies. That’s one of the sad parts about growing up. Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle), brings me right back to that place of magic and wonder. Miyazaki is often described as the Japanese Walt Disney, but that’s not a fair comparison. Miyazaki’s work is often more mature, a little darker, and even further into the realm of fantasy. And this film may be his best work. It’s the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, and the only anime film to be nominated for—and win—an academy award. It rightfully earns its place among the best animated films of all time.

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The Breakfast Club

The Breakfast Club

“You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.”

There are teen movies that are simply about teenagers, and there are teen movies that define universal teenage experiences. The Breakfast Club, directing by John Hughes (Home Alone, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and starring a host of 80s teen stars, is one of the latter. This movie not only defines and portrays universal teenage experiences, but it shows teenagers discovering that many of the things they thought were unique to them are, in fact, shared amongst all of them. Admittedly, this movie will probably not be mind-blowing for anyone over 30; but younger folks, especially those in high school and college, may walk away with some new insight into life. It shows that, no matter who you are, there are no good guys or bad guys in life—there are only people with different experiences, different outlooks, with probably a lot more in common with you than you think, and anyone can choose to be good or bad no matter where they are in life.

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The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers

“It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

The Blues Brothers (the band) was an interesting phenomenon. Blues music was waning in popularity and was listened to mostly by music enthusiasts. Through a mixture of great music and comedy, they brought blues music back into the mainstream for a brief moment and made it cool again. The Blues Brothers (the movie), directed by John Landis (Coming to America, Animal House) and starring Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, captures some of that magic as well as the music. Yes, it’s ridiculous and over-the-top; but the cameos and musical performances are amazingly fun and entertaining, and the comedy is pretty great too. I can’t say it’s brilliant, but I still have a blast every time I watch it. There have been movies that have tried to be The Blues Brothers, but there’s really no other movie quite like it.

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